Chelsea founder on Upson barrier

Birmingham City 0 Chelsea 0
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The Independent Football

So great are the expectations generated by Roman Abramovich's £110m spree, and so opulent the talent now at Claudio Ranieri's disposal, that Chelsea left the St Andrew's pitch with the look of disappointed men last night - despite having returned to the Premiership summit.

A true reflection of the balance of play was the fact that Birmingham had to defend 17 corners and won only two. But the home centre-backs, Matthew Upson and Kenny Cunningham, presented such a defiant barrier in front of an alert and agile Maik Taylor that Chelsea were kept goalless for the second time in three games.

Ranieri admitted he felt "frustrated" by the outcome, although "pleased" with a performance which saw Chelsea forcing their opponents ever deeper. "The match was very difficult because our opponents played with only one up front," the Italian said. "We were fantastic in the second half but without a very clear scoring chance."

Chelsea face their strongest test this season on Saturday when they visit Arsenal, a fixture in which we may finally see what their manager regards as his strongest line-up. Ranieri said it was "not important" to be top at this stage, yet Abramovich may see things differently. And the stories linking Sven Goran Eriksson with his job have still not gone away.

Birmingham did Chelsea the honour of changing from their usual 4-4-2 to a more defensive formation, a strategy partly forced upon Steve Bruce by Chelsea's refusal to allow the on-loan Mikael Forssell to face them. It was not pretty, but Bruce argued that the end justified the means.

"We've got to be pleased with a draw against such a good side," said the Birmingham manager, who can himself begin preparing now for his team's biggest match so far, Sunday's home derby with Aston Villa. "It shows how dramatically we have improved over the past 18 months. That's six clean sheets in eight matches, which is why there are not many centre-back duos I would swap Upson and Cunningham for."

Ranieri gave Hernan Crespo and Joe Cole their first starts in the League, while an injury to William Gallas during the warm-up also saw the so-called "Tinkerman" summon Robert Huth to partner John Terry in a young defence.

The partnership between Crespo and Jimmy Floyd Hasselbaink did not gel. Nor did Cole, the putative apex of a midfield "diamond" but often drifting out to the flanks in order to find room, manage to impose his precocious skills as he would doubtless have wished.

The opening 12 minutes were richly entertaining and deceptively tit for tat. After a week of disgrace, damage and drama for top-level football in England, it was exhilarating to see dribbling skills to the fore as the game strove to drag itself back into repute.

Wayne Bridge, enjoying his best game so far for Chelsea, embarked on a marvellous twisting run at the Birmingham back line as early as the eighth minute. Reaching the angle of the six-yard area, he squared the ball to Hasselbaink, whose shot from six yards was diverted behind by Jamie Clapham.

Within a minute, Stan Lazaridis jinked his way to the byline before cutting the ball back, only for Carlo Cudicini to claw it away. Then Christophe Dugarry swerved past two players before firing at Cudicini.

Chelsea began to establish a clear ascendancy through the efforts of Frank Lampard, Geremi and Claude Makelele. But the breakthrough remained elusive; when Lampard's deft pass picked out Crespo on the stroke of half-time, Taylor kept out the Argentinian's shot.

Increasingly, Birmingham were either unable or unwilling to go forward, but however strongly Chelsea pressed, Birmingham found the resilience to keep them at bay. After Taylor had denied Hasselbaink following another excellent pass by Lampard, Ranieri tinkered again in a bid to turn possession into points. Once again Cole did not play a full game, giving way to Damien Duff. To Birmingham's undoubted relief, Duff slotted into the "hole" rather than providing the width that Chelsea so conspicuously lacked.

Birmingham City (4-4-1-1): Taylor 7; Tebily 6, Cunningham 7, Upson 7, Clapham 6; D Johnson 5, Cisse 5, Clemence 6 (Hughes, 78), Lazaridis 5; Dunn 6; Dugarry 4 (John, 85). Substitutes not used: Bennett (gk), Kenna, Morrison.

Chelsea (4-4-2): Cudicini 7; G Johnson 5, Terry 6, Huth 5, Bridge 7; Lampard 7, Makelele 7, Geremi 7, Cole 5 (Duff 5, 66); Crespo 6, Hasselbaink 6 (Gudjohnsen, 78). Substitutes not used: Ambrosio (gk), Stanic, Melchiot.

Referee: N Barry (Scunthorpe) 7.